The Dark Fantastic is a grand disappointment.
There are two crucial points to note as context for any review of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ The Dark Fantastic. The first is that the premise for the book—namely, that there is something quite screwed up with the way that people in the US imagine people of color—is, by this point, nigh self-evident. For instance, after police shoot and kill unarmed black people, they often report that they were frightened for their lives by the mere presence of a black body. That is a failure of the popular imagination regarding race. The second point is that there is a long, detailed body of academic scholarship on this topic, ranging across several academic disciplines and involving every culture on the planet, including ancient and early modern ones that no longer exist. Such salient forces as nationalism, ethnic identity, religious practice and literary/fictional representation are predicated on skewed racial differences in the imaginations of people.
These two crucial points suggest that Thomas’ book, which claims to investigate how race and the imagination operate within recent popular young adult fiction, has much relevance and value to add to our conceptions. And while the potential for a worthwhile intervention is indeed there, the book does not fulfill any such promise. There are myriad reasons why The Dark Fantastic comes up short; these include very little engagement with the existing scholarship on race and imagination, Thomas’ lack of clarity with terminology and laissez-faire attitude to evidence and citation, the reduction of the word “race” to signify just “African-American” and a focus on tiny segments of fan communities as a stand-in for the imagination writ large. On their own, most of these issues would not be enough to sink the book, but together they compound in effect, so that the reader is constantly wondering what is happening on the page and why.
The most damning of these problems is Thomas’ muddling of terms, insistence on vague adjectives and lack of rigor with evidence. Most tellingly, the term “Dark Fantastic” is never clearly defined and its meaning seems to waver from chapter to chapter. She also brings in several imprecise synonyms—at least they seem to be synonyms—such as the “dream,” the “fantastic dream,” “the imaginary” and, in one chapter, “stories about stories.” Furthering reader confusion is her utilization of vague qualifying terms; for instance, “traditional” fantasy storytelling and “mainstream” culture. She also never explains how she selected the particular works of young adult fiction that she analyzes; why these four—including The Hunger Games and Harry Potter—and not others?
The terminological alphabet soup is only exacerbated by the scant evidence that Thomas brings to the fore. Mostly, she writes from her own experience as a black woman who voraciously reads and watches young adult fiction. Such testimony can work to frame a more thorough analysis or could convince a less rigorous reader, but such an approach is insufficient. One isolated person can be quite exceptional, particularly when she is recalling the events herself. When Thomas does turn to other sources, it is usually only to cite examples from tiny portions of tiny fan communities, as if quoting racist tweets from a dozen belligerent people proves anything about the imagination of the millions of readers of The Hunger Games books and films. In 2019, where being online means one sees the extent of Flat Earthers, a few twitter eggs not understanding a book seems obvious and does not convince one of anything. In other instances, she tangentially—and correctly!—lambasts the publishing industry for not publishing more works by writers of color, but all the evidence presented in these tirades is only marginally related to the main thrust of the book; the structural problems within the publishing industry are not the same as a fault in the collective imagination of the US public.
The Dark Fantastic is dealing with pathos-based argumentation and very small sample sizes for very large claims. But, even pretending that the evidence is convincing—and, to be clear, it is not—the book still comes up short. For Thomas, race equals blackness, which prevents her from connecting her arguments to the enormous body of scholarship in postcolonial studies centered on Gayatri Spivak and the concept that the Western mind often cannot even fathom the notion that racialized others may have something to say. She is blind to the burgeoning field of study on Orientalism and how the “Muslim” is a central unifying concept for European modernity (though she does at least cite Said). Furthermore, she ignores the tens of thousands of pages written by non-US blacks around the world on the issue of race and the imagination, including the extremely famous work of Fanon that is directly related to the claims of her book. She also does not address Foucault, who provides an intellectual framework for understanding the imagination, nor does she mention any of the post-Foucauldians who have expanded his ideas and made them relevant for the digital age.
No, what Thomas does instead of clarifying her ideas by putting them into conversation with Spivak, Said, Fanon, Foucault and their peers is talk about herself and her negative experiences with fan communities. She was, apparently, a founding member of an online Harry Potter fan group, but was later ostracized for plagiarism and never rehabilitated into the group, even though white plagiarists were eventually allowed back in. She claims she was kept out because of her race. Her putting all of this into The Dark Fantastic gets to the heart of the issues with the book: first, the reader has no way to verify that race had anything to do with how one small Harry Potter fan group treated Thomas; we just have to take her word for it. Second, and much more importantly, this entire episode has nothing to do with race and the imagination, nor does it advance the robust, preexisting conversation on the topic. Why does she spend an entire page quoting her own fan-fictional book set in the Harry Potter universe—yes, readers will get a full page of fanfic here and it is execrable (obviously)—but offers not a single word relating her book to the broader conversation?
The Dark Fantastic is a grand disappointment, taking a million-dollar premise and an argument most readers would already accede to and turning both of those into a confusing, out-of-touch memoir-disguised-as-monograph that pretends tiny pockets of irascible fans can stand in for society as a whole.